“With so many of us working and wanting so hard to make things better for kids and teachers in school, what’s keeping us from making a bigger difference?” In his pursuit of that question, Jason Raley has found himself with few sure answers but, perhaps more significantly, with a re- formulation of the problem. “History, educational policy, race and class – all of these matter, just like the ideas and intentions that people carry around with them matter. But I’ve begun to think that it’s our everyday habits – the way we understand and interact with each other without thinking about it very much – that keeps giving us different versions of the same basic school problems. We see something happen in the world, we respond to it, we get a response to our response, and so it goes, building up relations that keep things more or less like they were before.” The hard part, Raley believes, is “excavating” and then modifying those habits. Formulated this way, the problem is more than technical. It is also cultural (Where do our habits come from, and why is it so hard to change them?) and ethical (What counts as a “bad” habit, and do we have the right to change it?). “How,” Raley asks, “shall we disrupt our everyday ways of thinking and acting in the world?"
Raley’s ideas about habits and their disruption grow directly out of his research. In a recent paper, Raley described a “natural history” approach, combining long-term fieldwork with the close, slow, repeated examination of videorecorded interaction. It is this analysis of interaction that, though rooted in painstaking attention to the details of interaction, Raley’s approach also reaches for a fuller and more critical account of conventional terms and categories. His publications and presentations examine the nature of educational relations, as well as the situated construction of cultural ideas about ability and motivation. Raley’s research cannot be separated from his teaching. In 2010, Raley received a Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest honor given for teaching at UCSB. Although he teaches undergraduate courses and graduate seminars, teacher education is, according to Raley, “where the action is.” Raley was drawn into teacher education reluctantly at first, but it didn’t take long for the work to capture his imagination. “Teacher education demands that I square my own teaching practice with whatever it is I’m asking students to think about, including that I enlist my own students to help disrupt my own habits – this is what makes it such good, hard work.”
A recent trip to India made it clear that Raley’s aim to disrupt is hardly a private concern. Among visits to innovative schools and long discussions with leading educationists, Raley had the chance to meet with faculty involved in launching the national teacher education initiative of Azim Premji University (imagine Bill Gates started a university to go with his foundation – that’s Azim Premji U.). In 2010, India’s government passed a Right To Education Act that requires all teachers be formally credentialed. “It seems like a Wild West environment,” Raley says, “and the Azim Premji folks are taking the chance to re-think all the things we’ve been doing [in educating educators].”
In the end, Raley takes a clear, perhaps even disruptive position: “It’s very hard to argue that a person is intellectually inferior, or unmotivated, or malicious, once you’ve paid extraordinarily close attention to what she’s doing, and in response to what immediate context.” Pressed for example, Raley offers the following: “A student’s attention wanders when she’s supposed to be sitting down, working. What’s the problem? Is it a ‘concentration’ problem? A ‘motivation’ problem? A ‘learning’ problem? Or could her wandering be a sensible response to the immediate context, including whatever the teacher and the students around her are up to? A teacher fails to follow up on a student’s good idea. What’s the problem? Is the teacher lazy? Poorly trained? Lacking the right theory? Or could this be a sensible response to the form the student’s idea took, the demand for ‘right answers,’ the unpredictability that comes with following a student’s lead? It becomes a maxim: People make sense. But in ways we don’t easily notice.” The best way to disrupt our habits, it turns out, isn’t complicated: pay attention. “Just when I think I’ve got it all figured, a minute or two of really close attention gives me something new and interesting to think about. Even now,” Raley smiles, “it seems like magic.”